I read one of Georgette Heyer's mysteries, A Blunt Instrument, this past week, and I think my relationship with her as an author really personifies the way that I have grown and matured as a reader. This is mainly because she's an author I've read so steadily for so long. I read my first Georgette Heyer novel, The Nonesuch, when I was a junior in high school. I am still making my way through her extensive catalog today.
When I first read Heyer, I fell in love indiscriminately with so many of the heroes and heroines. I loved Sir Waldo in The Nonesuch because he had such substance to him- not only was he a rich and attractive man, but he was very committed to helping others and was a genuinely nice person. I loved Sophy in The Grand Sophy because she stood up for herself and always knew just what to do and lived a truly glamorous, globe-trotting life. I thought the romance in Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, was wonderful because the hero realized what a completely selfish snob he was and began to reform his character. I loved imagining myself into a Regency novel, complete with the style and the horses and the balls and the witty conversation and the country homes and massive debts. I consider these later years of high school and my early years of college to be my naive stage in reading. I read almost exclusively fantasy and historical fiction, and I closed my mind to any hints of social unrest or prejudice or discrimination. I was very happy to read Heyer in the same way because her books never touched upon any of those subjects at all, either.
And then I read Regency Buck. This book is by far my least favorite Georgette Heyer novel, to the extent that both the hero and the heroine disgust me right from the get-go. I can't say much without giving away the plot, but I am pretty sure that the hero would not think twice about taking complete advantage (even against her will) of a woman who was not his social equal, and the heroine was selfish and really just wanted people to notice her (which wasn't really that hard, because she was apparently drop-dead gorgeous. Of course). In many ways, Regency Buck was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I realized that many of Heyer's plots were repeated from one book to another with slight variation. I realized that many of the male characters were insufferably smug and high-handed, and that many of the women were pretty vapid and prone to hysterics. Perhaps not all the characters, and not always the main characters, but slowly it occurred to me that perhaps Georgette Heyer's world was not as fun and frothy and amusing as I had first believed, particularly for a woman. I began to see how utter boredom could lead to very bad decisions, particularly related to gambling. I saw how being born into money could make someone feel better than everyone else, and treat them accordingly, take advantage of relative positions on the social scale.
It was only after I graduated from college that I started reading Heyer's mystery novels, and they only accelerated the fall and shattering of the rose-colored glasses for me. I started blogging and participating in online reading forums, discussing books and their impact again and learning so many more titles to explore and nuances to books I already loved. I entered the work force in a very male-dominated industry, in a very white office, and began to feel more acutely that I was a woman and a minority. I came to business school and faced the tension that exists for so many people to make a lot of money quickly or to do something that they love. I saw even more just how difficult the workplace can be for a woman, and how subtle prejudice can be. I started reading so much more about women's and racial history, and drew on my own experiences in life.
And I read Heyer's mysteries and began to feel very cynical about who she must have been and what she must have felt about certain topics. I realized that Heyer was extremely classist, and this comes out so much more in her mysteries than in her romances because the country home-dwelling characters of leisure interact with the working-class police inspectors. They are not generally treated kindly. She portrays the upper crust as suffering from severe ennui, so bored with their beautiful bodies and perfect lives that they just sit and bicker with each other over inheritances. There is always a bumbling, very slow-witted police officer who is an object of humor because he is so stupid he doesn't even understand when the rich people are mocking him.
I also saw that Heyer was really pretty racist, particularly against Jewish people, as described in multiple books by her, but my most recent encounter with it was in A Blunt Instrument (review posting soon). This was particularly disheartening to me because Heyer wrote most of her books between WWI and WWII, and some in the years directly after the war, and it was very hard to forgive her stereotyping when I knew what suffering that kind of thinking would cause.
There's also the very troubling way that Heyer deals with her romances, and the interplay between men and women, even in the mysteries. I realized that even though Sophy in The Grand Sophy is very much her own strong woman, she is brought to heel by a certain romantic interest who tells her what's what. Always, at the end of the book, the woman submits physically to the man by being taken into a "crushing embrace" that leaves her breathless and makes her realize that what she truly wants is a man who can match and tame her.
I wonder, if I were to be introduced to Georgette Heyer now, if I would love her the way that I currently do. I feel like I've grown up with Heyer and can track my own progress as not only a reader but as a person who is cognizant of her environment and the impact it has upon her against Heyer's extensive collection. I love Heyer, and when I reread a Regency by her, I am transported again to that perfect literary world that I created for myself those years ago. But now I am much more aware of the things Heyer does not mention, and the situations that her characters cheerfully ignore as they go about their merry lives. And so my relationship with the author has become decidedly more nuanced- much more gray than it ever was before, and much more challenging to my own goals and visions for what I want my life to be.
Is there an author in your life that has affected you the way that Heyer has affected me? Can you think of a time when you read a book and realized that you had changed?